Class still defines and disfigures Britain and Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, November 24th 2019

Class still matters and defines much of Britain and Scotland. It shapes life chances, educational opportunities, work advancement and careers, health, life expectancy, culture, politics – and who makes and does not make the key decisions in society.

Dr. Fiona Hill, the British-born US public servant, spoke this week at the Trump impeachment hearings about being born in Bishop Auckland in the north of England, saying: ‘This country [the US] offered me opportunities I would never have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working class accent. In England in the 1980s this would have impeded my professional advancement.’

It wasn’t meant to be like this. John Major spoke of the ‘classless society’ and John Prescott just before the 1997 election asserted that ‘we’re all middle class now’. Yet, earlier this year Tony Blair defending his Premiership stated ‘we made the UK more equal’, only to be corrected by the Institute for Fiscal Studies who commented that Labour had not achieved this.

Danny Dorling, academic and author of ‘Inequality and the 1%’ thinks things are getting worse and predicted that: ‘The UK is on a trajectory to become the most unequal of the richest twenty-five nations of the world’. Not only are the best off 1% getting richer there is growing inequality at the top, with the ultra-rich 0.1% leaving behind everyone else.

As the UK experienced a decade of stagnation for most people, the richest 1,000 families saw their wealth double. Quantitative easing by the Bank of England over-inflated assets and provided a state backed bonanza inflating the portfolios of the super-rich. This is part of a wider phenomenon with the global ‘top 5%’ capturing 44% of the increase in global wealth since the 1990s.

Dorling thinks we should simmer with rage at this saying: ‘The class injustices that most angers me in the UK today are the extremes we now tolerate which my parents’ generation did not.’ This is the return of Disraeli’s ‘Two Nations’: ‘You can today be born into a class and be more likely in future to die freezing on the streets as compared to your chances of going to the kind of university that will propel you forward.’

Selina Todd of Oxford University, an expert on class in Britain, points to the negative impact of changes in the workforce, where ‘under capitalism most of us are obliged to work for a living, and without strong trade unions and workers’ co-operatives we’re at the mercy of employers’ whims and desire for profit.’

Private education accounts for 7% of the school age population but that tiny minority have huge disproportionate power: 42% of Oxford University undergraduates are privately educated, 37% of Cambridge and Durham, 35.6% of St. Andrews and 33.6% of Edinburgh.

This feeds into Britain’s elites: 74% of judges, 71% of barristers and 71% of senior military are privately educated. The same is the case in areas less associated with the traditional establishment – 60% of British winners of Oscars, 62% of BAFTA winners and 41% of UK medalists at the London Olympics also went to fee-paying schools.

The British political class at Westminster have a disproportionate number of privately educated MPs. The total in the outgoing Parliament was 29% of all MPs – varying from 44% Conservative, 30% Lib Dems, 13% Labour and 6% SNP. The number of Scottish Parliament politicians privately educated was 20% at the last election.

Of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet 64% are privately educated. And even worse, Johnson is the 20th UK Prime Minister out of 55 to be educated at Eton – David Cameron having been the 19th. Nine Prime Ministers were educated at non-fee paying schools – including Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major, Brown and May.

The pernicious impact of private education damages society as Selina Todd observes: ‘Private education legitimates inequality. It suggests that the elite who run the country are ‘brighter’ than the rest of us. By giving a small group of children a step up at an early age, private education hides the bare fact that the Boris Johnsons of this world owe their place to their families’ wealth and greed.’

Class and inequality are aided by the continuation of deference – which reinforces the entitlement culture of Boris Johnson and the Royal Family leading to Prince Andrew’s long-term friendship with sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein because he never thought he would be held accountable.

Deference is legitimised by reactionary nostalgia and a selective view of the past. Step forward ‘Downton Abbey’ – the TV series and film released this year, written by Tory Julian Fellowes. As the cultural critic Stuart Jeffries noted, the franchise fits ‘into the reactionary Keep Calm and Carry on ethos that has permeated austerity Britain urging political quietism on those suffering most.’

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent book ‘The Victorians: Twelve Titans who forged Britain’ – eleven men and Queen Victoria – describes the Victorian era as characterised by ‘moral certainty’, ‘wise confidence’ and of course, ‘patriotism’.

All of this has a particular English currency. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not immune to class divisions and the power of elites. But a powerful version of England – of the countryside, rural traditions, and a romantic version of the past – has become associated with the politics of reaction.

Class does play a major part in Scotland. Private education disfigures society– we just tend to talk about it less. University principals (57%) and Scottish judges (45%) are two groups with high levels of private education, while 24% of Edinburgh secondary school pupils attend fee paying schools.

Life expectancy is falling in the UK. The gap between the Glasgow suburb of Lenzie and the East End area of Calton – a mere eight miles apart – for a child born in 2013 is 28 years. That is the sort of social apartheid we have come to associate with American towns and cities, with Chicago having a gap in life chances of 30 years and two towns in North Carolina of 41 years.

British society is disfigured by treating working class lives as expendable. The new series of ‘The Crown’ brought home how little progress has been made when it portrayed the tragedy of Aberfan – where a colliery coal tip fell on the Welsh town in October 1966 killing 144 people including 118 children. This was avoidable and the dangers warned off, with the ultimate responsibility laid at the door of the National Coal Board.

Fast forward to the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 when 72 people died. This was a result of terrible decisions – the type of cladding put round the tower block to save money, deregulation, the housing policies of Tory-run Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and the decision on the night of the fire of London Fire Brigade to tell residents to remain in their flats. Subsequently, two years of Tory inaction on cladding and housing standards in England culminated in the recent Bolton student accommodation fire, which fortunately resulted in no fatalities.

Is it possible that Britain and Scotland can change from this grim picture? Thirty years of post-war Labour Government have, with the exception of Clement Attlee, made little dent on the citadels of power and privilege. It is unlikely, despite the radical plans of the Labour manifesto launched last week, that Jeremy Corbyn will get a mandate to implement far-reaching change.

This leaves us with the challenge to act in Scotland. Despite twenty years of the Scottish Parliament we have made little progress on social justice but have taken the decision to turn our backs on the most brutal Westminster cuts and welfare policies that hurt the most vulnerable.

Todd thinks action should start with private education and ‘closing the tax loopholes enjoyed by elite private schools, and using that money to improve the lives of all children’, leading to ‘the integration of private schools into the state system, creating a comprehensive, free, non-selective education system.’ Scotland is taking business tax relief away from private schools from 2020-21.

Dorling believes we need to start at the top ‘curtailing the excesses of the rich’ and starting with ‘six of the best’: ‘Take the six mostly highly endowed public schools, the six companies who pay their CEO the most, the six riches colleges of both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the six richest families in London (the richest families of the UK all live in London); and levy a tenth of their wealth every year in a windfall tax.’

This is a major factor in this election: privilege, elite arrogance and the grotesque inequalities which disfigure the UK. Addressing this and putting it into reverse is going to require political leadership, public pressure, and taking on vested interests. Being prepared to do so will decide not only the future of society, but ultimately, of Scotland and the UK.